Whiting gun dispute unresolved as daily fines pile up

WHITING — Months after the Whiting Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld a Zoning Notice of Violation to Stickney Road resident Nicolas Iocco for operating an unpermitted commercial shooting range and for violating noise and safety provisions, Iocco and town officials remain at a standoff on his payment of $400 of daily fines that have piled up since May.
Iocco insists he stopped running a commercial operation after receiving the original May 3 notice of violations, stopped all group shoots in July, and has since then rarely shot at all on his 90-acre property at 299 Stickney Road or on adjacent land where he has permission to shoot. 
“There’s a big misunderstanding somehow with my town. I’m still getting blamed for conducting long-range shooting on my property, and shooting as if it was a commercial use, and that is not the case,” Iocco said. “I have not done any kind (of shooting), and they are still blaming me for it and trying to charge fees and fines on me. And it’s just not true. I’m not doing it, it’s just my own personal use that I’ve gone back to, what every Vermonter enjoys doing on their own land.”
But on Sept. 22 the zoning board upheld two notices of violation against Iocco.
One was for staging a number of events on his and the neighboring property as the “Green Mountain Rifle Challenge,” and charging $50 or $60 to as many as 25 participants (including Vermont State Police and National Guard members). Iocco said those fees covered insurance and target costs and nothing more, and thus he was not running a business.
Also on Sept. 22, the zoning board upheld the noise and safety portion of the zoning violations notice.
As was the case at that and other meetings, including during summer public hearings dealing with Iocco’s appeal of the May 3 violation notices issued by zoning administrator Kate Briggs, other people disagree with his version of the facts, including Iocco’s contention he rarely shoots on his and neighboring land.
For example at a selectboard meeting in December neighbor Gary Freeguard said a shot Iocco fired went near Freeguard’s father; Iocco denies this. Freeguard declined on-the-record comment on the incident other than to state it occurred in early October, long after Iocco said he had stopped using long-range weapons to shoot at targets thousands of yards away.
Freeguard said he had been advised by his attorney not to say more because he is looking into suing Iocco for his shooting on the neighboring property.
Town Clerk Gale Quenneville said long-range shooting is what has unnerved neighbors. According to meeting minutes Iocco bought his property near the Shoreham town line in 2003 and has always shot on it, but more recently developed an interest in long-range riflery and began to invite others to shoot with him.
“That’s what was scaring everybody,” Quenneville said.
According to minutes of an April 2017 selectboard meeting, board members asked Briggs if a compromise was possible about the group shoots: “Kate asked if there was room for negotiation? The answer was a resounding NO! They do not want to negotiate, they want it to stop.”
Iocco maintains those group shoots did stop promptly with the May notice, other than family and “personal friends,” and the daily fines should be waived.
“That was all previous stuff. My family shoots with me, but I have not conducted any organized shoots like I used to, but I’m still getting blamed for that,” he told the Independent.
But Briggs said money was still being collected at shooting events this past summer, and that the issues of noise and the safety of long-range shooting remain.
“He’s been fined because it’s unsafe,” Briggs said.
Some neighbors did not return calls before the deadline for this story, but minutes of Whiting meetings throughout 2017 reflect many complaints and, earlier in the year, documentation of group shoots and payment requests.
In December, neighbor Lori and Gary Freeguard spoke at the selectboard meeting, according to minutes: “Lori Freeguard stated this is clearly a safety issue. Lori is concerned about the safety at her home and the connected neighbors. She said target practice for hours at 1,000 yards is not normal. Gary Freeguard stated that (Iocco) shoots more than 100 shots, and one day was shooting toward Gary’s Dad on his tractor.”
Quenneville also confirmed that Gary Freeguard told Iocco at that meeting that he (Freeguard) could win his home in a lawsuit.
As well as denying the tractor incident, Iocco said there is “no proof” he has shot in recent months.
“The farmer also lets other people shoot on his property. And the other day I heard quite a few shots on his property. Well, it wasn’t me shooting,” he said. “Everybody thinks, ‘Well, it must be Nick out there shooting,’ when it’s not me.”
At an April 24 selectboard meeting neighbors complained, “shooting is occurring in up to three directions,” including toward a road popular among ATV riders.
According to May zoning board minutes Beverly Bilodeau said she felt it was not safe to use her land, and Sue Bilodeau became one of several neighbors to complain about 6:30 a.m. starts and the use of neighboring land by ATV riders. Gary Freeguard at that meeting cited “thousands of rounds a day.”
At an August zoning hearing on Iocco’s appeal, neighbor Owen Kant raised the issue of ATVs and asked Iocco who his range designer was.
Iocco denies the early starts, said shooting stops when ATV riders are in the vicinity, and in August replied “God” was his range designer, stating that natural terrain made it safe for long-range shooting.
Iocco echoed that point of view in a recent interview.
“I can see my target,” Iocco said. “Behind the targets there are woods and ridgelines and hills.”
Iocco said his shooting expertise makes him qualified to determine if shooting is safe, and at zoning hearings supplied letters supporting his range safety from a former U.S. Army and Vermont Army National Guard marksman and a certified firearms instructor and range safety officer.
Iocco said before a long-range shot is taken a shooter considers bullet speed, the ballistic co-efficiency of the bullet, the type of scope and its calibration, wind speed and direction, elevation clicks, and more.
“I’m at the point of being a professional in this field,” he said. “To shoot like I do you have to understand a vast amount about ballistics of firearms.”
He was asked if he could guarantee the safety of someone up to a mile away who is not in his field of view when he shoots.
“That’s what everyone wants to know,” Iocco said. “But there’s so much variation in what can and can’t happen. I can walk over there and I could set up anything I want around it, put up yellow tape all the way around it … But the yellow tape, hundreds of yards in every direction surrounding this target, would also make it so somebody could come and walk underneath that tape and walk behind it even though you had done proper things to say stay away from this spot.”
Essentially, Iocco said, Whiting is dealing with a right-to-shoot issue.
“You would have to say then anyone in the state of Vermont, no matter where they shot, they could possibly injure somebody,” he said, adding, “Everybody has their own biases whether a shot and a placement of a target is safe. If someone doesn’t like shooting it doesn’t matter where you set it, what kind of safety measures you do, they will always say it’s unsafe, because they will always say what if, what if, what if?”
But Briggs said the safety question is not so simple.
“He feels like he is being safe because he knows a lot about shooting,” she said.
Briggs said she has described the situation to experts from the NRA and Fort Ethan Allen, the Vermont National Guard headquarters.
“They all say no, it’s not safe,” Briggs said, adding that although she does not dispute Iocco’s expertise, “Range design is something completely different.”
And Quenneville described an online video, since taken down, of Iocco taking a shot and commenting.
“There was a video where Nick says, ‘I don’t even know where that went,’” Quenneville said. “The neighbors have seen it.”
Briggs has proposed to Iocco that she would recommend to the selectboard that the zoning fines be waived if Iocco would pay the town’s legal fees related to the case — now about $6,000 and counting — and stop the long-range shooting.  
“You have to say, ‘The shooting I’ve been doing is unsafe,’ and come up with another plan, and he’s never done that,” Briggs said.
Iocco has met with the selectboard to complain about the fines, but has not accepted Briggs’ offer. Last week he said about the proposal that his attorney “has not commented back to me on that subject yet, so I’m not going to comment on what I would or wouldn’t do on that.”
Meanwhile Quenneville noted that Iocco’s neighbors are mostly also gun owners and hunters, and while the Whiting selectboard briefly looked at a gun law, there was no real interest.
“Whiting doesn’t want a shooting ordinance,” Quenneville said. “We weren’t going to punish everybody.”
Briggs said this case is symptomatic of how hard it is for small towns to deal with gun problems in a state that has few statewide regulations that deal with firearms — neighbors have also complained about informal shooting ranges in Goshen, Lincoln and Ripton.
“The underlying problem is gun use… has never really been addressed at a state level,” Briggs said. “It comes down to a little tiny town that has very little resources to deal with it. And it’s fine when it’s OK. And when it’s not OK, it’s a huge and thorny problem.”
In the meantime, not everybody is getting along in one of those tiny towns, she said: “Tempers are running high in Whiting.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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